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9 min

South Korea’s gay march forward

Confucianism, nationalism and evangelical Christianity blamed for slow progress

Despite city hall’s last-minute decision not to sponsor Seoul’s 2014 Queer Culture Festival in June, an estimated 10,000 participants still attended the celebration, featuring concerts, drag and dance performances, booths from different LGBT organizations and a parade. Credit: Sabrina Constance Hill

Days before Seoul was to celebrate this year’s Queer Culture Festival in June, city hall withdrew its sponsorship of the event. The stated reason was to mourn April’s Sewol ferry disaster. But organizers and participants think pressure from Korea’s powerful evangelical churches swayed city hall.

When the event went ahead anyway, an estimated 10,000 participants showed up. It included concerts, drag and dance performances, booths from different LGBT organizations, representatives from the American, German and French embassies, and Christian protesters.

Approximately 300 evangelicals from several churches picketed the June 7 event. They shouted slogans and carried signs that read, “Our youth are getting AIDS because of homosexuality,” and “Homosexuality is not genetic. It’s an acquired choice. Treatment is possible” and “Homosexual queers –> threat of God’s judgment through nuclear warfare.”

When it came time to begin the parade, the protesters lay down in front of the floats, blocking them. Hundreds of police were out, but they did not move them. After four hours of waiting, the organizers turned the parade around and went the other way.

Reverend Daniel Payne, 35, is the pastor of Open Doors Metropolitan Community Church (ODMCC) in Haebangchon, Seoul. An American and a former Baptist, he came to Korea in 2003 and set up the church in 2011. He is a gay man who leads one of Korea’s very few gay-affirming, progressive churches.

“I think that’s part of the process of LGBT people getting equal rights and coming out,” Payne says of the protesters. “The more we come out, the more opposition there’s going to be.”

Before, gays could safely be ignored by Korean homophobes. That is no longer the case.

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Korean homophobia comes from many places, but three philosophies are particularly relevant: Confucianism, the Chinese philosophy that informs traditional Korean society; nationalism, which views homosexuality as a foreign import; and evangelical Christianity.

Confucianism orders people into various overlapping hierarchies: teacher-student, father-son, husband-wife and so on. It was imported into Korea in the 14th century, and it places the heterosexual family squarely at the centre of society.

Nationalism is a more recent phenomenon but has been very powerful. It often treats homosexuality as a foreign “problem.” Until a few years ago, it was a common claim that “there are no gays in Korea.” Today, the nationalist claim is usually “you brought it here.”

Though Confucianism and nationalism have waned in modern South Korea, evangelical Christianity remains very strong. Only about 25 percent of Koreans are Protestant, but it is the religion of the young, the professional, the intellectual and the middle class, according to academic Jang Sukman. As a result, it is particularly powerful, especially in Seoul.

The skylines of most Korean cities are dotted with crosses. Missionaries frequently knock on doors and leaflet street corners, and all sorts of weird cults have broken from the mainstream churches. The BBC reports that South Korea sends more missionaries overseas than any other country in the world, except the United States.

They are also strongly influential in government. Though the current president, Park Geun-hye, is an atheist, her conservative Saenuri party has strong ties to the evangelical community. Her opponent in the last election, Moon Jae-in of the liberal Democratic United Party, reversed an earlier stand in favour of gay rights, promising evangelical voters there would be no recognition of gay relationships if he were elected.

Edhi Park, 28, a trans woman and activist, believes conservative Christians are the biggest obstacle to gay rights in Korea. “There are certain people, especially the older generation, who have never heard of [homosexuality], and they are not used to it,” she says. “And there are some pastors who are unreasonably against LGBT. So when people hear [homophobic] sermons, they become against it. It’s the ignorance combined with the hatred that creates it.”

June-young Lee, 27, is a board member and interpreter at the ODMCC. He was raised in a conservative Presbyterian church, where his father is an elder and his mother a deacon. As well as Christianity, traditions of deference to elders shape how his parents think.

“My dad is from a Confucianist background,” Lee says. “And he is the eldest of a very large family, so we have our traditions when it comes to Korean culture. And that’s tied in with the Christian culture.”

When Lee came out to his parents in 2009, he says, “it did not go well.” His mother “doesn’t want me to sin,” and his father “absolutely does not want me to be gay.” He says their attitudes continue today.

When Lee attempted suicide for the second time, in university, he says it was because he figured he was hell-bound anyway, so he would kill himself now and get it over with.

“I thought maybe just ending my life now would be much easier, because the consequences are going to be the same,” he says. “Me being gay: going to hell. Me dying now: going to hell. What’s the difference?”

When he woke up, he felt it was all God’s plan. “I said, ‘God you must either be punishing me or you must be giving me another chance,’” Lee says. Soon after that he found the ODMCC and began working there.

Reverend Payne wore a Jesus costume to the Queer Culture Festival, which led to a discussion with one protester. “A lady approached me afterward and asked if I was a pastor, and I said yes,” Payne says. “She said, ‘It breaks my heart that you’re wearing a Jesus costume.’ And the only thing I could say is that it breaks my heart your theology is killing teenagers.”

Hyo-jin, 21, is a lesbian and a student. She, too, was raised in a very conservative church. “When I heard something homophobic from the pastor, I felt like I didn’t belong there,” she says. “He said, ‘We need to respect homosexuals, but we can’t accept them.’ How ironic, I thought.”

Hyo-jin found it very difficult to be in the closet. “I have a strong inner identity. If I tried to change myself or deny myself, it would be so hard for me . . . When I was young, it was really hard. I couldn’t be the way I am.”

When she was 14, she cut her wrists but survived. “I needed to do something,” she says. “I couldn’t stand it.”

When she came out to her family, it didn’t go as she had hoped. Her sister “didn’t distinguish between gay and transgendered,” Hyo-jin says. “So she told me, ‘You need to be a woman.’” Her mother was not happy either, and though they’ve spoken about it a lot, she is afraid of her daughter hanging out with gay men who are “crazy about sex.”

Repeated emails to the Christian Council of Korea, an umbrella group for conservative churches in Korea, and the conservative Presbyterian Church of Korea, were not answered.

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For many Canadian and Western gays, much of this is familiar. The difference is that Korean standards of filial piety and obedience to elders are much stricter here. So are Korean concepts of “normalcy.”

Han, 40 (not their real name), is an intersex video game designer who also accuses the churches of fomenting hate.

But, Han says, “Probably the biggest barrier is the rather totalitarian nature of the ways Korean people think. It basically assumes that everybody must have the same life values and style as a family, and this causes xenophobia, homophobia and all kinds of prejudices and discrimination against those who don’t follow social norms.”

Ray, 32 (not her real name), is a bisexual writer and teacher. She says traditional Confucianism has made Koreans a medieval people in a 21st-century world. “Korean people are like those who are living in the 21st century with the medieval ideas in their little brains, carrying high-tech electronic devices, pretending to be fully Westernized by America, with Starbucks paper cups in their hands, and believing that they are cool about sexual diversity,” she says.

At the same time, she says, they won’t challenge their parents, they strive for a level of complete “normalcy,” especially in their gender roles, and criticize those who deviate.

Ray says respect for parents and ancestors has been the most important part of Korean life for a thousand years. “For Korean people, disobeying your parents is the worst of the worst sins in the world,” she says. “In this way, it is absolutely impossible for Korean homosexuals to be open in society. Who would be such a brave, open gay in this super conservative society without support from families?”

Ray herself remains closeted.

This dynamic of piety to elders stretches into other realms as well: school, the workplace and the church. Whereas in the West it might be possible to engage in an open debate with your pastor, most Koreans consider the idea insane.

Added to that is nationalism. As South Korea opens up to the world, conservatives fear Western liberal ideas are contaminating Korean society. Nowhere is this more obvious than with homosexuality.

“There’s been an undercurrent in every conversation I’ve had with Korean Christians that I should not be bringing my American progressive version of Christianity into the country,” Payne says. “And to be honest with you, I’ve been a bit uncomfortable being a foreign pastor of a church in Korea.” He is hoping to find a Korean LGBT pastor to take over from him in a few years.

Lee points to the protests that were outside the American embassy, because it had a booth at the Queer Culture Festival, as an example of idiotic nationalism. AIDS in Korea is still considered a “foreign” disease spread by gay people, and many foreign residents, like English teachers, are required to get AIDS tests before they can live in Korea.

Homo Hill, a small but densely packed street of gay bars, is located in Itaewon, the most culturally diverse neighbourhood in Seoul, and is full of foreigners.

Yang Jinmo, 22, a gay activist, says, “Some people really believe it’s a Western invention.” But for “the people who are using it as propaganda, they just need a reason [to hate].”

***

South Korea has changed more in the past 70 years than any other nation on Earth. As it developed from a poor, rural, war-ravaged dictatorship to a rich, urban, peaceful democracy, gay life was pulled along in the whirlwind.

“In Korea, 30 or 40 years ago, all people wanted to do was develop,” Hyo-jin says. “They were sick and tired of poverty and hunger. They had no time or power to think about [homosexuality].” Now, she says, “I think Korea is rich enough they can care about sexuality.”

Korea is a lot better than many other countries when it comes to gay rights, as several activists point out. Homosexuality is legal. Violent gaybashings are rare. For better or worse, gay men are drafted into the army along with their straight brethren. Within army ranks, homophobic bullying can be a problem, but is not the experience universally.

TV shows and movies are beginning to show positive images of gay couples. The 2010 TV drama Life Is Beautiful featured a positive story about a gay Korean couple and was very successful. The 2006 movie King and Clown, featuring a gay love triangle set in the 16th century, was seen by 12 million people.

Actor Seok-cheon Hong, who declined to be interviewed, is himself an icon of gay progress in the country. When he came out in 2000, he was fired from all his TV shows and didn’t work for years. Today, he is frequently on television. And director Kwang Soo Kim Jho held a public, though illegal, wedding to his partner, in a ceremony celebrated by thousands. (His marriage application was rejected by city hall.)

Apart from Itaewon’s Homo Hill, there is a gay district in Jongno, where men, closeted and open, can meet, drink and cruise. The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf there is referred to as “the Gay Bean,” and there are nearly no foreigners in the district.

According to a 2013 poll released by the Pew Research Centre, and quoted in The Wall Street Journal’s blog “Korea Realtime,” 39 percent of Koreans agreed with the statement “Homosexuality should be accepted by society.” This was double the number who agreed in 2007, “by far the biggest leap among the 39 countries surveyed,” according to Pew. For those aged 18 to 30, the figure was 71 percent agreement.

Most LGBT Koreans I interviewed believe increased exposure to Western norms has caused the shift. Gay marriage in the West, television shows like Modern Family and Pride demonstrations all over the world have convinced many Koreans that being gay is normal. Sex and the City, a huge sensation when it was rebroadcast in Korea in the early 2000s, influenced a generation of young Korean women, with its frank talk about female sexuality, its portrayal of fashionable Manhattan life and the women’s gay friends.

***

But gay kids are still dying. Lee speaks matter-of-factly about an 18-year-old who had reached out to the ODMCC for help but killed himself anyway. South Korea’s suicide rate is far and away the worst in the developed world, and for queer kids it is horrific — 58 percent of LGBT Koreans have attempted suicide, according to a local group called the Rainbow Action against Sexual Minority Discrimination and reported in the Korean-American magazine KoreAm.

Right now, Payne and Lee are working with other organizations to set up the Rainbow Teen Safe Space. It will begin with a 24-hour hotline for gay teenagers in distress. The hope is to set up a drop-in centre soon after that, a place where gay Korean teens can get counselling, a place to stay if they need it, and hopefully even job skills. Though it is backed by a few churches, Payne insists it will be strictly secular.

Otherwise, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Koreans continue to persevere as best they can.

“I am a Korean,” Ray says. “I was born and grew up in Seoul. I love my country, and I do love all my family and friends. I thought about living abroad and I actually tried, but I’m still here, closeted.”

“The thing about Korea is, when things happen, when some catalyst is thrown into the mix, things happen very quickly,” Payne says. “So I expect the progress, even though it seems glacial, to be quicker than it was in the States or other Western countries.”